The opening days of a Vatican meeting of 250 Catholic bishops under the auspices of Pope Benedict XVI have produced relative fireworks, considering the usual staid nature of such get-togethers.
Hot topics emerged from the moment the bishops sat down Monday. Among them were a purported shortage of priests, proposals to let priests marry, and whether communion should be offered to certain divorced Catholics and denied to politicians who support abortion rights.
Detailed daily briefings about the closed sessions gave the issues a public airing unusual by Vatican standards. But such was the crush of headlines that the Vatican responded with a venerable method of control: It limited the information provided to journalists and the public.
Clergy who had been briefing reporters said Wednesday that from now on they would disclose only the topics of discussion, not details, "in order to allow the bishops to speak more freely."
The bishops, from 118 countries, are meeting in Vatican City. Known as a synod, the gathering was formally called to discuss the Eucharist, the central Mass sacrament of bread and wine believed by Catholics to be the body and blood of Jesus. But working papers presented at synods, which take place every two years, cover a wide range of topics.
The prelates sit in a special hall that resembles an amphitheater, as if attending a college lecture. Each is given six minutes of speaking time in a daily discussion session. The bishops will make recommendations to the pope at the end of the three-week meeting.
The decision to limit public information was reminiscent of a blackout on media coverage imposed by the Vatican nine days in advance of the conclave that elected Benedict pope in the spring. Traditionally, that period is one of openness before the voting cardinals cloister themselves to choose a new pope. According to cardinals present at the time, it was Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who imposed the ban in his role as senior prelate.
The limits on synod information were laid down a day after one speaker, Archbishop William J. Levada of the United States, was quoted as saying the bishops ought to discuss banning communion for Catholic politicians who back abortion rights. The issue "has caused some divisions among the people in the church," Levada said.
During last year's U.S. presidential campaign, at least one American bishop said he would refuse to give communion to Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, who said he personally opposed abortion but believed that women had a right to choose. Levada is Benedict's successor as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that enforces orthodoxy.
A day before Levada's remarks, the briefers aired a debate over priestly celibacy.
In the past, Benedict has displayed antipathy to such give-and-take in public and has criticized theologians for discussing all sides of issues on the grounds that open debate confuses parishioners.
A representative from an Eastern Rite church, one of the bodies in the traditionally Orthodox Christian region of the world that recognize Vatican authority, suggested that Catholic rules requiring celibacy among priests had no theological grounds.
Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines said the synod had to squarely confront a priest shortage so as to provide congregations with proper services.
The National Council of Priests of Australia, which claims to represent half the country's clergy, offered a letter to the synod saying the priesthood could attract more recruits if the church allowed priests to marry and opened a debate on letting women be ordained.
Venice Archbishop Angelo Scola, who functions as a kind of master of ceremonies at the synod, noted that some delegates had "put forward the request to ordain married faithful of proven faith and virtue," a special category made up of older, married and religiously grounded Catholic men known as viri probati.
Scola added that he was opposed to the idea and that the solution to a priest shortage was a better distribution of priests in the world, not a loosening of celibacy rules in an attempt to draw more men into the priesthood.
He said the church wasn't a business with production quotas to meet. According to statistics that the church issued two years ago, there was one priest for every 2,677 Catholics compared with one for every 1,797 in 1978.
Bishops also took up the issue of letting Catholics who divorce and remarry take communion, the briefers said Tuesday. Under Catholic teaching, those who remarry can receive communion only if their first marriages have been annulled by the church. Pierre-Antoine Paulo, bishop of Haiti, said, "We have to ask ourselves whether in particular cases, as already happens for certain sinners," communion "could not be given to remarried divorcees."
Archbishop John Dew of Wellington, New Zealand, said, "There are those whose first marriages ended in sadness; they have never abandoned the church but are currently excluded from the Eucharist."
Scola did not respond directly but noted that communion was a "gift" and not a "right."